- Identify the steps required to ratify the Constitution
- Describe arguments the framers raised in support of a strong national government
- Discuss counterpoints raised by the Anti-Federalists
On September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia voted to approve the document they had drafted over the course of many months. Before it could become the law of the land, the Constitution faced another hurdle. It had to be ratified by the states.
What is the process of approval?
Article VII, the final article of the Constitution, required that before the Constitution could become law and a new government could form, the document had to be ratified by nine of the thirteen states. Eleven days after the delegates at the Philadelphia convention approved it, copies of the Constitution were sent to each of the states, which were to hold ratifying conventions to either accept or reject.
This approach to ratification was unusual.
Authority under the Articles of Confederation and the Confederation Congress had rested on the consent of the states, changes to the nation’s government should also have been ratified by the state legislatures. Instead, by calling upon state legislatures to hold ratification conventions to approve the Constitution, the framers avoided asking the legislators to approve a document that would require them to give up a degree of their own power. The men attending ratification conventions would be delegates elected by their neighbors. Delegates were not being asked to relinquish their own power; in fact, they were being asked to place limits upon the power of their state legislators.
Because the new nation was a republic with power held by the people through elected representatives, it was appropriate to leave the ultimate acceptance or rejection of the Constitution to the nation’s citizens. If convention delegates, who were chosen by popular vote, approved it, then the new government could rightly claim that it ruled with the consent of the people.
The greatest sticking point when it came to ratification, as it had been at the Constitutional Convention itself, was the relative power of the state and federal governments. The framers believed the central government needed power to maintain and command an army and navy, impose taxes, and force the states to comply with laws passed by Congress. Many people resisted increasing the powers of the national government at the expense of the states.
Edmund Randolph of Virginia, disapproved of the Constitution because it created a new national judicial system. The fear was that the federal courts were too far away. State courts were located closer to the homes of both plaintiffs and defendants, and it was believed that judges and juries in state courts could better understand the actions of those who appeared before them. In response to these fears, federal courts were created in each of the states.
Perhaps the greatest source of dissatisfaction with the Constitution was that it did not guarantee protection of individual liberties. State governments had given jury trials to residents charged with violating the law and allowed their residents to possess weapons for their protection. Some had practiced religious tolerance. The Constitution did not contain reassurances that the national government would do so. This led opponents to call for a bill of rights and the refusal to ratify the document without one. The lack of a bill of rights was especially problematic in Virginia, as the Virginia Declaration of Rights was the most extensive rights-granting document among the states. The promise that a bill of rights would be drafted for the Constitution persuaded delegates in many states to support ratification.
Consider the Original
Thomas Jefferson on the Bill of Rights
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson carried on a lively correspondence regarding the ratification of the Constitution. In the following excerpt (reproduced as written) from a letter dated March 15, 1789, after the Constitution had been ratified by nine states but before it had been approved by all thirteen, Jefferson reiterates his previously expressed concerns that a bill of rights to protect citizens’ freedoms was necessary and should be added to the Constitution:
“In the arguments in favor of a declaration of rights, . . . I am happy to find that on the whole you are a friend to this amendment. The Declaration of rights is like all other human blessings alloyed with some inconveniences, and not accomplishing fully its object. But the good in this instance vastly overweighs the evil. . . . This instrument [the Constitution] forms us into one state as to certain objects, and gives us a legislative & executive body for these objects. It should therefore guard us against their abuses of power. . . . Experience proves the inefficacy of a bill of rights. True. But tho it is not absolutely efficacious under all circumstances, it is of great potency always, and rarely inefficacious. . . . There is a remarkeable difference between the . . . Inconveniences which attend a Declaration of rights, & those which attend the want of it. . . . The inconveniences of the want of a Declaration are permanent, afflicting & irreparable: they are in constant progression from bad to worse.”
Citizens quickly separated into two groups: federalists and anti-federalists. The federalists believed a strong government was essential for both national defense and economic growth. A national currency would ease business transactions. The central authority to regulate trade and place tariffs on imports would protect merchants from foreign competition. Furthermore, the power to collect taxes would allow the national government to fund internal improvements like roads, which would also help commerce.
Opponents of ratification were called anti-federalists. Anti-federalists feared the power of the national government and believed more accessible state legislatures could better protect freedoms. Although some anti-federalists, like Patrick Henry, were wealthy, most distrusted the elite and believed a strong national government would favor the rich over those of “the middling sort.” 
Even members of the social elite, like Henry, feared that the centralization of power would lead to the creation of a political aristocracy, to the detriment of state sovereignty and individual liberty.
Related to these concerns were fears that the strong central government levy taxes on farmers and planters, who lacked the hard currency needed to pay them. Many also believed Congress would impose tariffs on foreign imports making American agricultural products less welcome in Europe and in European colonies in the western hemisphere.
Some anti-federalists believed that a large federal republic could not work as intended. Americans had long held that virtue was necessary in a nation where people governed themselves (i.e., putting self-interest and petty concerns aside for the good of the larger community). In small republics, similarities among community members would naturally lead them to the same positions and enable those in power to understand the needs of their neighbors. In a larger republic, encompassing nearly the entire Eastern Seaboard and running west to the Appalachian Mountains, people would lack such a strong commonality of interests.
Likewise, anti-federalists argued, the diversity of religion protected by the Constitution would prevent the formation of a political community with shared values and interests.
In all the states, educated men authored pamphlets and published essays and political cartoons arguing either for or against ratification. Although many writers supported each position, the Federalist essays are now best known. The arguments these authors put forth, along with explicit guarantees that amendments would be added to protect individual liberties, helped to sway delegates toward ratification.
For obvious reasons smaller and less populous states favored the Constitution and the protection of a strong central government. Delaware and New Jersey ratified the document within a few months after it was sent to them for approval in 1787. Connecticut ratified it early in 1788. Some of the larger states like Pennsylvania and Massachusetts also voted for the new government. New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution in the summer of 1788.
Although the Constitution went into effect following ratification by New Hampshire, four states still remained outside the newly formed union. Two were the wealthy and populous states of Virginia and New York. In Virginia, James Madison’s active support and the intercession of George Washington, who wrote letters to the convention, changed the minds of many. Some who had initially opposed the Constitution, such as Edmund Randolph, were persuaded that the creation of a strong union was necessary for the country’s survival and changed their position. Other Virginia delegates were swayed by the promise that a bill of rights similar to the Virginia Declaration of Rights would be added after the Constitution was ratified. On June 25, 1788, Virginia became the tenth state to grant its approval.
The last major hurdle was New York’s approval. Facing considerable opposition, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote a series of essays, beginning in 1787, arguing for a strong national government and support of the Constitution. Later compiled as The Federalist and now known as The Federalist Papers, these eighty-five essays were originally published in newspapers in New York and other states under the name of Publius, a supporter of the Roman Republic.
The essays addressed a variety of issues that troubled citizens. In Federalist No. 51, attributed to James Madison, the author assured readers they did not need to fear that the national government would grow too powerful. The federal system, in which power was divided between the national and state governments and the division of authority within the federal government into separate branches, would prevent any one part of the government from becoming too strong.
Furthermore, tyranny could not arise in a government in which “the legislature necessarily predominates.” Finally, the desire of office holders in each branch of government to exercise the powers given to them, described as “personal motives,” would encourage them to limit any attempt by the other branches to overstep their authority. According to Madison, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
In Federalist No. 35, Hamilton argued that people’s interests could be represented by men who were not their neighbors. Hamilton asked rhetorically, would American citizens best be served by a representative “whose observation does not travel beyond the circle of his neighbors and his acquaintances” or by someone with more extensive knowledge of the world? To those who argued that a merchant and land-owning elite would come to dominate Congress, Hamilton countered that the majority of men currently sitting in New York’s state senate and assembly were landowners of moderate wealth and that artisans usually chose merchants, “their natural patron[s] and friend[s],” to represent them. An aristocracy would not arise, and if it did, its members would have been chosen by lesser men. Similarly, Jay reminded New Yorkers in Federalist No. 2 that union had been the goal of Americans since the time of the Revolution. A desire for union was natural among people of such “similar sentiments” who “were united to each other by the strongest ties,” and the government proposed by the Constitution was the best means of achieving that union.
Madison also addresses fears of elite dominance in Federalist No. 10. Americans need not fear the power of factions or special interests, he argued, for the republic was too big and the interests of its people too diverse to allow the development of large, powerful political parties. Likewise, elected representatives, who were expected to “possess the most attractive merit,” would protect the government from being controlled by “an unjust and interested [biased in favor of their own interests] majority.”
For those who worried that the president might indeed grow too ambitious or king-like, Hamilton, in Federalist No. 68, assured placing the leadership of the country in the hands of one person was not dangerous. Electors from each state would select the president. Because these men would be members of a “transient” body called together only for the purpose of choosing the president and would meet in separate deliberations in each state, they would be free of corruption and beyond the influence of the “heats and ferments” of the voters. Indeed, Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 70, instead of fearing a tyrannical president, Americans should realize that it was easier to control one person than it was to control many. Furthermore, one person could also act with an “energy” that Congress did not possess. Making decisions alone, the president could decide what actions should be taken faster than could Congress, whose deliberations, because of its size, were necessarily slow. At times, the “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch” of the chief executive might be necessary.
Although arguments of the Federalists were persuasive, it is unclear whether they actually succeeded in changing the minds of New Yorkers. Once Virginia ratified the Constitution on June 25, 1788, New York realized that it had little choice but to do so as well. If it did not ratify the Constitution, it would be the last large state that had not joined the union. A year later, North Carolina became the twelfth state to approve. Alone and realizing it could not hope to survive on its own, Rhode Island became the last state to ratify, nearly two years after New York.
One of the objections raised to the Constitution’s new government was that it did not set term limits for members of Congress or the president. Those who opposed a strong central government argued that this failure could allow a handful of powerful men to gain control of the nation and rule it for as long as they wished. Although the framers did not anticipate the idea of career politicians, those who supported the Constitution argued that reelecting the president and reappointing senators by state legislatures would create a body of experienced men who could better guide the country through crises. A president who did not prove to be a good leader would be voted out of office instead of being reelected. In fact, presidents long followed George Washington’s example and limited themselves to two terms. Only in 1951, after Franklin Roosevelt had been elected four times, was the Twenty-Second Amendment passed to restrict the presidency to two terms.
Questions to Consider
- Why did so many people oppose ratification of the Constitution, and how was their opposition partly overcome?
- What were some of the consequences of not having a written protection of liberties or bill of rights?
- Why did Jefferson favor a bill of rights?
- Are term limits a good idea?
- Should term limits be added to the Constitution? Why or why not?
Terms to Remember
Anti-federalists–those who did not support ratification of the Constitution
Federalists–those who supported ratification of the Constitution
Federalist Papers–a collection of eighty-five essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in support of ratification of the Constitution
Term Limits–limiting the president and members of Congress to a specified number of terms of office; no restrictions to this day on congressional terms
- Pauline Maier. 2010. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. New York: Simon & Schuster, 464. ↵
- Maier, Ratification, 431. ↵
- Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, March 15, 1789, https://www.gwu.edu/~ffcp/exhibit/p7/p7_1text.html. ↵
- Isaac Krannick. 1999. "The Great National Discussion: The Discourse of Politics in 1787." In What Did the Constitution Mean to Early Americans? ed. Edward Countryman. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 52. ↵
- Krannick, Great National Discussion, 42-43. ↵